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Papyrocentric Performativity is a sub-site of Overlord of the Über-Feral, where further book-reviews are sometimes posted.

Wilde about Algy

Wilde about Algy: Oscar, Algernon, and Gilbert Too

If someone who gets the blame for what someone else did is a scapegoat, someone who gets the credit for what someone else said has to be a scapequote. And the greatest scapequote of them all has to be Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). It’s not surprising, though, because Wilde was a very clever and sharp-witted man. For example, you may well read that the painter James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), also reknowned for his wit, once jealously remarked of one of Wilde’s bon mots: “I wish I had said that.” To which Wilde replied, “You will, James, you will.”1

Pretty sharp, wasn’t it? The problem is that it was really the other way around: Wilde was jealous of something Whistler had said, and it was Whistler’s put-down. See what I mean about Wilde being the greatest scapequote of them all? And it isn’t just other people’s repartee Wilde gets the credit for:

Behind the fun of Gilbert’s lines stands the quite serious business of satire. Generally his targets are common human attitudes – hypocrisy, class distinction, and so forth; but with Patience he descended from the general to the particular and burlesqued the aesthetic movement of the time, typified by Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, J.M. Whistler, and their self-professed disciples.2

He didn’t, you know. Gilbert is W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911), and Patience (1881) is one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, but Gilbert did not write Patience about Oscar Wilde and the school of poetry Wilde typified: he wrote it about Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1903) and the school of poetry Swinburne typified. And I can’t believe anyone at the time thought otherwise: Swinburne was far more famous than Wilde and, as we shall see, is unmistakably caricatured in the hero of the opera. It’s Wilde’s fame since then that has caused history to be re-written – to the point, I was amused to discover, that one biographical dictionary credits him with even more than inspiring Patience :

WILDE, Oscar … (1854-1900), Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, poet and wit, born in Dublin … In 1881 his first volume of poetry was published, Patience, and the next year he embarked on a lecture tour of the USA …3

Wilde’s first volume of poetry was in fact called Poems, and is in fact a good piece of evidence that Patience wasn’t written about him, because it was published in July 1881 and Patience was first performed in April. Is it likely that the hero of Patience, who is a poet, was based on someone who hadn’t even published his first volume of poetry? Not very, and it becomes even less likely when we look first at the name of the hero, which is Reginald Bunthorne, and second at his precise classification, which is “Fleshly Poet”. Reginald Bunthorne is clearly meant to suggest Algernon Swinburne, and “Fleshly Poet” is clearly meant to be a reference to

Fleshly School of Poetry, The, the title of an article in the Contemporary Review (Oct. 1871), in which Robert Buchanan[,] under the pseudonym of “Thomas Maitland”, attacked the Pre-Raphaelites[,] especially D.G. Rossetti. This attack was the prelude to a long and bitter controversy.4

Conducted in part by Algernon Swinburne, who was closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and whose verse was one of the chief targets in Buchanan’s article, just as it is one of the chief targets in Gilbert’s libretto for Patience :

“OH, HOLLOW! HOLLOW! HOLLOW!”

What time the poet hath hymned

The writhing maid, lithe-limbed,

Quivering on amaranthine asphodel,

How can he paint her woes?,

Knowing, as well he knows,

That all can be set right with calomel?

When from the poet’s plinth

The amorous colocynth

Yearns for the aloe, faint with rapturous thrills,

How can he hymn their throes

Knowing, as well he knows,

That they are only uncompounded pills?

Is it, and can it be,

Nature hath this decree,

Nothing poetic in the world shall dwell?

Or that in all her works,

Something poetic lurks,

Even in colocynth and calomel,

I cannot tell.

[Exit BUNTHORNE.

ANG[ELA]. How purely fragrant!

SAPH[IR]. How earnestly precious!

PA[TIENCE]. Well, it seems to me to be nonsense.

The vocabulary and phrasing are characteristically Swinburnian: limbs are lithe in “Dolores”, for example:

Thou shalt blind his bright eyes though he wrestle,

Thou shalt chain his lithe limbs though he strive;

In his lips all thy serpents shall nestle,

In his hands all thy cruelties thrive. [lns. 201-4]

And Patience’s verdict on Bunthorne – “It seems to me to be nonsense” – echoes the verdict of many on Swinburne: for Tennyson he was “a reed through which all things blow into music”5 and for A.E. Housman a kind of poetic “sausage-machine”.6

But then Housman did admire Swinburne greatly in other ways, and Swinburne himself was well aware of his own prolixity and tendency to sacrifice sense to sound:

From the depth of the dreamy decline of the dawn through a notable nimbus of nebulous noonshine,

Pallid and pink as the palm of the flag-flower that flickers with fear of the flies as they float,

Are they looks of our lovers that lustrously lean from a marvel of mystic miraculous moonshine,

These that we feel in the blood of our blushes that thicken and threaten with throbs through the throat?

These are the first lines of “Nephelidia”, a self-parody published in The Heptalogia in 1880. Perhaps Swinburne heard that Gilbert was at work on a Swinburlesque, and decided to get in with his own first; in either case, he was already familiar with parodies on his verse. In 1866 he had published the first series of his Poems & Ballads, and had been condemned in very strong terms for the blasphemies and obscenities of poems like “Dolores”:

Cold eyelids that hide like a jewel

Hard eyes that grow soft for an hour;

The heavy white limbs. and the cruel

Red mouth like a venomous flower;

When these have gone by with their glories,

What shall rest of thee then, what remain,

O mystic and sombre Dolores,

Our Lady of Pain? [lns. 1-8]

O lips full of lust and of laughter,

Curled snakes that are fed from my breast,

Bite hard, lest remembrance come after

And press with new lips where you pressed!

For my heart too springs up at the pressure,

Mine eyelids too moisten and burn;

Ah! feed me and fill me with pleasure,

Ere pain come in turn. [lns. 25-32]

By the ravenous teeth that have smitten

Through the kisses that blossom and bud,

By the lips intertwisted and bitten

Till the foam has a savour of blood,

By the pulse as it rises and falters,

By the hands as they slacken and strain,

I adjure thee, respond from thine altars,

Our Lady of Pain. [lns. 113-120]

But by far the cleverest and most telling critique of Poems & Ballads, in general, and “Dolores”, in particular, was written by a Cambridge don called Arthur Clement Hilton (1851-77):
OCTOPUS

By Algernon Charles Sin-Burn

(Written at the Crystal Palace Aquarium)

Strange beauty, eight-limbed and eight-handed,

Whence camest to dazzle our eyes?

With thy bosom bespangled and banded

With the hues of the seas and the skies;

Is thy home European or Asian,

O mystical monster marine?

Part molluscous and partly crustacean,

Betwixt and between.

Wast thou born to the sound of sea-trumpets?

Hast thou eaten and drunk to excess

Of the sponges – thy muffins and crumpets,

Of the seaweeds – thy mustard and cress?

Wast thou nurtured in caverns of coral,

Remote from reproof or restraint?

Art thou innocent, art thou immoral,

Sinburnian or Saint?

Lithe limbs, curling free, as a creeper

That creeps in a desolate place,

To enrol and envelop the sleeper

In a silent and stealthy embrace,

Cruel beak craning forward to bite us,

Our juices to drain and to drink,

Or to whelm us in waves of Cocytus,

Indelible ink!

Ah breast, that ’twere rapture to writhe on!

O arms ’twere delicious to feel

Clinging close with the crush of the Python,

When she maketh her murderous meal!

In thy eight-fold embraces enfolden,

Let our empty existence escape;

Give us death that is glorious and golden,

Crushed all out of shape!

Ah! thy red lips, lascivious and luscious,

With death in their amorous kiss!

Cling round us, and clasp us, and crush us,

With bitings of agonized bliss;

We are sick of the poison of pleasure,

Dispense us the potion of pain;

Ope thy mouth to its uttermost measure

And bite us again!7

A good parody is worth a thousand moral condemnations – or a thousand literary criticisms. The best critical essay on Swinburne I have ever read is A.E. Housman’s “Swinburne”, whose “sausage-machine” verdict was quoted above, but even if the essay wasn’t rather sour and disdainful in tone it would still take a long time to read – particularly by comparison with these lines from G.K. Chesterton:

He was defeated in several battles by the celebrated Arnhold brothers – the three guerilla patriots to whom Swinburne wrote a poem, you remember:

‘Wolves with the hair of the ermine,

Crows that are crowned and kings–

These things be many as vermin,

Yet three shall abide these things.’8

And yes, anyone familiar with Swinburne’s political poetry would remember. Not those exact words, of course, because Chesterton has made them up, but the verbal dexterity and the passionate but naive anti-monarchism.

Chesterton wrote at least one more parody of Swinburne, and it’s another example both of how effective parodies can be as a method of literary criticism and of how enjoyable they are. A parody is a work of art in its own right, and instead of sniping at its target from the groves of Academe it’s fighting on the same ground and with the same weapons. Housman’s essay on Swinburne is very good, but would much better have been accompanied or even replaced by a parody of him – which Housman, unlike most literary critics, would have been well capable of supplying. The asperities of Housman’s judgments in prose would have been softened in a parody, conveyed by example rather than explication, and Swinburne addicts like me would have had another purified extract to inject. In some ways Hilton’s “Octopus” has the same advantage over “Dolores” itself as Chesterton’s lines have over Housman’s essay: it distils and concentrates an essence, and allows one to savour Swinburne’s pungencies and spices in twenty couplets and a minute rather than, as in the original, two-hundred-and-twenty and half-an-hour.

Mutatis mutandis, the same is true of Chesterton’s second Swinburne parody in “Old King Cole – Variants of an Air”:

In the time of old sin without sadness

And golden with wastage of gold

Like the gods that grow old in their gladness

Was the king that was glad, growing old;

And with sound of loud lyres from his palace

The voice of his oracles spoke,

And the lips that were red from his chalice

Were splendid with smoke.

When the weed was as flame for a token

And the wine was as blood for a sign;

And upheld in his hands and unbroken

The fountains of fire and of wine.

And a song without speech, without singer,

Stung the soul of a thousand in three

As the flesh of the earth has to sting her,

The soul of the sea.

And, with increasing silliness but also increasing affection, Mortimer Collins’ “Salad”:

O cool in the summer is salad,

And warm in the winter is love;

And a poet shall sing you a ballad

Delicious thereon and thereof.

A singer am I, if no sinner,

My muse has a marvellous wing,

And I willingly worship at dinner

The sirens of Spring.

Take endive… like love it is bitter;

Take beet… for like love it is red;

Crisp leaf of the lettuce shall glitter,

And cress from the rivulet’s bed;

Anchovies foam-born, like the Lady

Whose beauty has maddened this bard;

And olives, from groves that are shady;

And eggs – boil ’em hard.

And Barry Pain’s survey of “The Poets at Tea”:

3. Swinburne, who let it get cold

As the sin that was sweet in the sinning

Is foul in the ending thereof,

As the heat of the summer’s beginning

Is past in the winter of love:

O purity, painful and pleading!

O coldness, ineffably gray!

Oh, hear us, our handmaiden unheeding,

And take it away!

And, finally, Richard le Gallienne’s “A Melton Mowbray Pork Pie”:

Strange pie that is almost a passion,

O passion immoral for pie!

Unknown are the ways that they fashion,

Unknown and unseen of the eye.

The pie that is marbled and mottled,

The pie that digests with a sigh:

For all is not Bass that is bottled,

And all is not pork that is pie.9


APPENDIX 1: How did Wilde become so strongly associated with Patience?

Nihil novi sub sole, inquit Ecclesiastes. Nothing new under the sun, saith the preacher. I don’t actually believe that, not completely, anyway, but it’s certainly true that many things are not as new as we think they are. Marketing campaigns and advertising hype, for example. Very twentieth-century, aren’t they?

Well, yes. But they’re also very nineteenth-century. A name nearly as closely connected with Gilbert and Sullivan as they are with each other is D’Oyly Carte. As in the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901) and the D’Oyly Carte Company he founded to produce Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas. And a company it was in both senses: the operas were produced to make money, and if you want to make money you also have to avoid losing it. Pirating of the operas in America lost D’Oyly Carte money, and he was always anxious about their reception there.

But the problem he felt Patience might have was not with piracy but simply with popularity. The opera satirized English institutions that the Americans would be unfamiliar with, and his apprehensions may have been increased by a verdict passed after the first British performance by the “critic of the Referee”, who

noticed that some of Gilbert’s shots went over the heads of the audience, perhaps because the fusillade was too rapid: this opera is packed with subtleties of humour – the very title Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride is a joke, for Bunthorne is the only one who is not married off at the end.10

That last point is yet another piece of evidence for the thesis of the article: Swinburne was aged 44 in 1881 and still, remarkably, unmarried; but Swinburne could hardly be expected to help publicize an opera making fun of him and his art. An up-and-coming young poet with a hunger – craving, even – for fame might be expected to, however. Particularly one who would later write that “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”.11

D’Oyly Carte worked also as an agent, and there was just such a young poet on his books: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, who was aged 27 in 1881 and still, not very remarkably, unmarried. D’Oyle Carte arranged for Wilde to undertake a lecture tour of America with a profitably comprehensible Patience following in his wake: audiences who had seen Wilde posing and posturing on stage with a lily in his hand could now understand, and laugh at, Bunthorne doing the same.

In short, and in D’Oyle Carte’s own words of denial, Wilde was sent out as “a sandwich[-board] man for Patience”.12 To the Americans, familiar with Swinburne’s poetry but not with his person, Bunthorne became Wilde, and the misidentification – helped, perhaps, by changes in the opera – travelled back across the Atlantic to last to the present day. And it is likely to last, perhaps, for good: modern audiences are familiar neither with Swinburne’s poetry nor with his person, but Wilde, in Swinburne’s shadow at the beginning of his career, now looms larger than ever.

And so it is that the anomalies of Wilde-as-Bunthorne go ever more unnoticed: Swinburne’s surname, like Bunthorne’s, is disyllablic and a trochee:13 Wilde’s is neither; in real life Swinburne was, like Bunthorne on stage, short and bearded: Wilde was tall and clean-shaven; Swinburne, like Bunthorne, was an English aristocrat: Wilde was Irish and not particularly aristocratic; Swinburne was Bunthorne: Wilde was not.


APPENDIX 2: Lewis Carroll’s parody of “Dolores” in Sylvie & Bruno

‘Why, that are one of the Professor’s songs!’ cried Bruno. ‘I likes the little man; and I likes the way they spinned him–like a teetle-totle-tum.’ And he turned a loving look on the gentle old man who was sitting at the other side of his leaf-bed, and who instantly began to sing, accompanying himself on his Outlandish guitar, while the snail, on which he sat, waved its horns in time to the music.

In stature the Manlet was dwarfish–

No burly big Blunderbore he:

And he wearily gazed on the crawfish

His Wifelet had dressed for his tea.

‘Now reach me, sweet Atom, my gunlet,

And hurl the old shoelet for luck:

Let me hie to the bank of the runlet,

And shoot thee a Duck!’

She has reached him his minikin gunlet:

She has hurled the old shoelet for luck:

She is busily baking a bunlet,

To welcome him home with his Duck.

On he speeds, never wasting a wordlet,

Though thoughtlets cling, closely as wax,

To the spot where the beautiful birdlet

So quietly quacks.

Where the Lobsterlet lurks, and the Crablet

So slowly and sleepily crawls:

Where the Dolphin’s at home, and the Dablet

Pays long ceremonious calls:

Where the Grublet is sought by the Froglet:

Where the Frog is pursued by the Duck:

Where the Ducklet is chased by the Doglet–

So runs the world’s luck!

He has loaded with bullet and powder:

His footfall is noiseless as air:

But the Voices grow louder and louder,

And bellow, and bluster, and blare.

They bristle before him and after,

They flutter above and below,

Shrill shriekings of lubberly laughter,

Weird wailings of woe!

They echo without him, within him:

They thrill through his whiskers and beard:

Like a teetotum seeming to spin him,

With sneers never hitherto sneered.

‘Avengement,’ they cry, ‘on our Foelet!

Let the Manikin weep for our wrongs!

Let us drench him, from toplet to toelet,

With Nursery-Songs!

‘He shall muse upon “Hey! Diddle! Diddle!”

On the Cow that surmounted the Moon:

He shall rave of the Cat and the Fiddle,

And the Dish that eloped with the Spoon:

And his soul shall be sad for the Spider,

When Miss Muffet was sipping her whey,

That so tenderly sat down beside her,

And scared her away!

‘The music of Midsummer-madness

Shall sting him with many a bite,

Till, in rapture of rollicking sadness,

He shall groan with a gloomy delight:

He shall swathe him, like mists of the morning,

In platitudes luscious and limp,

Such as deck, with a deathless adorning,

The Song of the Shrimp!

‘When the Ducklet’s dark doom is decided,

We will trundle him home in a trice:

And the banquet, so plainly provided,

Shall round into rose-buds and rice:

In a blaze of pragmatic invention

He shall wrestle with Fate, and shall reign:

But he has not a friend fit to mention,

So hit him again!’

He has shot it, the delicate darling!

And the Voices have ceased from their strife:

Not a whisper of sneering or snarling,

As he carries it home to his wife:

Then, cheerily champing the bunlet

His spouse was so skilful to bake,

He hies him once more to the runlet,

To fetch her the Drake!


NOTES

[1]I did read this once, only the other party wasn’t described as being Whistler.

[2]Michael Hardwick, The Osprey Guide to Gilbert and Sullivan, Osprey, Reading, 1972, Patience, pg. 91

[3]Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ed. Magnus Magnusson, W & R Chambers, Edinburgh, 1990.

[4]The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Literature, ed. John Mulgan, Oxford, 1957.

[5]Algernon Charles Swinburne: Selected Poems, ed. L.M. Findlay, Carcanet, Manchester, 1982, introduction, pg. 2

[6]“Swinburne”, in A.E. Housman: Collected Poems & Selected Prose, ed. Christopher Ricks.

[7]Unauthorized Versions: Poems & their Parodies, ed. Kenneth Baker.

[8]From the story “The Fairy Tale of Father Brown”, in The Wisdom of Father Brown, pg. 306 of the 1983 The Penguin Complete Father Brown.

[9]These are taken from Imitations of Immortality: A Book of Literary Parodies, E.O. Parrott.

[10]Leslie Bailey, The Gilbert and Sullivan Book, Spring Books, London, 1966, “Patience: A Caricature of the Follies of the Age”, pp. 210-1

[11]“The Picture of Dorian Gray”, ch. 1

[12]Letter from D’Oyly Carte to Helen Lenoir, December, 1881, quoted in The Gilbert and Sullivan Book, pg. 212

[13]Other phonetic similarities between Swinburne and Bunthorne are too obvious to mention.


© Simon Whitechapel 2004

On the eve of the most important British general election in 2-3 generations (or more), Papyrocentric Performativity is positively pulsating with pride and passion to present a Keyly Kommitted Kore Kounter-Kultural Kwiz…

Readers’ advisory: Keyly Kommitted Kore Kounter-Kultural Kwiz contains explicit reference to genocide, necrophilia and Passionate Paprika Maverick Munch. Proceed at YOUR OWN RISK…

Core Counter-Cultural Quiz…

Early RiserDecline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh (1928)

The Future is FascistFuturism, Richard Humphreys (1999 Tate Publishing)

Mystery and MeaningDictionary of Plant Names, Allen J. Coombes (1985)

Noshing on NoxiousnessNekro-Noxious: Toxic Tales of True Transgression in Miami Municipal Mortuary, Norberto Fetidescu (TransVisceral Books 2018)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Early Riser

Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh (1928)

If Waugh had died after completing Decline and Fall, just as if Swinburne had died after completing Atalanta in Calydon (1865) or Poems & Ballads (1866), his reputation in English literature would still be secure, I think. Swinburne’s reputation in fact would be higher and though Waugh’s wouldn’t – he never lessened the impact of his early genius with much hack-work in old age – Decline and Fall remains an astonishing achievement not just as a first novel but as a novel full stop.

Though to be strictly accurate it wasn’t a first novel: that honour had gone to The Temple at Thatch, “about madness and magic”, which Waugh burnt in manuscript after his friend Harold Acton was unenthusiastic about it. The “magic” in question was black magic, so perhaps there is something Pagini-esque about Decline and Fall. Did Waugh sell his soul to the Devil in return for the supreme skill as a novelist that he would go on to confirm with books like Black Mischief (1932) and Scoop (1938)?

It’s certainly plausible: Decline and Fall is not only extremely well-written in a deceptively simple style à la Hemmingway, but also extremely witty in a way Hemmingway never was. It tells the tale of Paul Pennyfeather, who is blown hither and thither by the winds of vicissitude but is ultimately weighty enough to settle into a sheltered niche. At the beginning of the novel, he is set upon and debagged by upper-class hooligans while studying theology at Oxford. With gross injustice, the college authorities promptly send him down for indecent behaviour, so he’s forced to take up school-mastering to earn a living. His first and, as it happens, only employer, Dr Fagan of Llanabba Castle School in Wales, is not shocked to learn the true reason for Paul’s expulsion from Oxford. “[T]rue to his training”, Paul confesses all:

“I was sent down, sir, for indecent behaviour.”

“Indeed, indeed? Well, I shall not ask for details. I have been in the teaching profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal. …”

But Dr Fagan is not sufficiently blasé to forget to force a reduction in salary out of Paul because of his misbehaviour. It’s a compounding of the original injustice that will happen again and again as the novel proceeds. At Llanabba Paul meets Captain Grimes, whose single appearance in this book was sufficient to secure him a permanent place in English comic writing, and begins teaching the son of the woman he will eventually marry.

But I won’t quote more and give more details of the plot, because that would spoil the book for those who haven’t read it. I’ll just say that Paul sees the idiocies of education from the inside, then resigns to marry and suffer more grotesque injustice. Decline and Fall should be read by anyone who loves prose and wit for their own sake. Imagine a Wodehousian farce written by a more cynical and sophisticated Wodehouse who was an even greater master of prose. Decline and Fall is perhaps the best first – or first-published – novel ever written in the English language. Or any language. High praise? Read it and see if I’m not right.

Futurism, Richard Humphreys (1999 Tate Publishing)

The future of Futurism has come and gone, and in some ways it was exactly what Futurists wanted. They demanded speed, noise, and violence, after all, and the twentieth century provided enormous amounts of all three. And when I say “demanded”, that is exactly what I mean: like a political party, the Futurists had a manifesto, penned by Filippo Marinetti. Clause nine was this:

We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.

And if you’re thinking that sounds rather, well, fascist, you’re right, because Futurism, despite being an avant-garde, fetishistically modern movement, was closely allied with Italian fascism. If that news comes as a surprise when you open this book, prepare for another surprise as you leaf through it, because Futurist art, at least from masters like Umberto Boccioni or Giacomo Balla, is actually interesting, even, whisper it, skilful. Sometimes attractive too.

What it isn’t, however, is particularly distinctive: much of the art reproduced in this book could have appeared in other books in the series, which covers movements in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth-century avant-garde like Cubism, Minimalism, and Surrealism. No, what makes Futurism distinctive is its bombast, its manifestos, and its political allegiances. They’re all described here, and refreshingly they’re not described in the usual stale bourgeois academese of most modern criticism in the arts.

That’s not to say all the text is worth reading: for me, analysing a picture is like analysing a joke: it destroys any spontaneous enjoyment. Art is about images and intuition; analysis is about words and logic. They take place in different parts of the brain and they shouldn’t be mixed. Perhaps that’s why it’s easier to take Futurist paintings seriously than it is to take Futurist prose:

We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.

Perhaps the most appropriate response to Futurism in theory was Evelyn Waugh’s vignette in Brideshead Revisited (1945) of Futurism in action:

We were joined by a Belgian Futurist, who lived under the, I think, assumed name of Jean de Brissac la Motte, and claimed the right to bear arms in any battle anywhere against the lower classes. (Part II, 3)

The battle in this instance was against the lower classes of Britain during the General Strike, and the attempt to join it ended like this:

Jean, who joined another company, had a pot of ferns dropped on his head by an elderly widow in Camden Town and was in hospital for a week.

But the embers of Futurism are glowing yet, and this book is a good short survey of the pre-war fires of energy and excitement that created them.

Dictionary of Plant Names, Allen J. Coombes (1985)

Rich and fascinating in their own right, scientific names add greatly to the pleasure of natural history, commemorating both its roots in ancient history and the scientists who have laboured to systematize and classify the living world. So you can move from Achillea millefolium, “the thousand-leafed (medicinal) plant of Achilles” to Lonicera hildebrandiana, “Hildebrand’s plant of Lonitzer”. Achilles will need no introduction; Adam Lonitzer (1528-86) was a German naturalist and A.H. Hildebrand (1852-1918) a British plant-collector. I was disappointed at first to learn where Lonicera came from, because it’s an attractive name that I thought would have some suitably attractive meaning in Latin or Greek. After all, the most famous member of the genus is L. periclymenum, or honeysuckle.

But beauty from banality is appropriate enough for plants, and there are countless beautiful meanings elsewhere. Strange ones too, like Lycopersicum esculentum, “tasty wolf-peach”, a.k.a the tomato, and Dranunculus muscivorus, “fly-eating little dragon”. That last plant reveals one of the book’s minor flaws, however, because it’s also listed under its alternative name of Helicidiceros muscivorus. But the listing refers you straight to D. muscivorus and you’ll have to go outside this book to find out what Helicidiceros means (“the helical plant with two horns”, apparently).

That apart, Dictionary of Plant Names should fascinate and delight any serious gardener or plant-lover and almost all of the names vanish into mystery in the end, because even the ones that have millennia of written history in Latin or Greek go back into many more millennia of prehistory.

The man ultimately responsible for this feast of mystery and meaning, beauty and strangeness, was the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), who invented the binomial system — generic name with initial capital (Achillea) plus specific name in lowercase (millefolium) — and who commemorated himself in his favourite plant, the delicately beautiful Linnaea borealis, “the northern Linnean”, whose common name is “twin flower”. It was a humble choice for the greatest of all systemizers and classifiers, but humility is a Christian virtue (albeit a little-practised one) and Linnaeus was a staunch Protestant.

That isn’t a coincidence: Protestantism was one of the foundation-stones of modern science and though that wasn’t necessarily good either for Protestantism itself or for the wider world, it may reflect the more introverted psychology of northern Europeans. As God and our relation to Him slowly slid off-stage, the natural world slid on and we eventually discovered that we were part of it. The staunchly Protestant Linnaeus led to the agnostic Darwin, the agnostic Darwin to the staunchly atheist Dawkins. Orbis redit in orbem — “the cycle ever repeats” — but science can still offer quiet aesthetic pleasures as it marches us back towards fanaticism and worse, and you can find some of them in books like this.

Pygmies and Secret PolicemenFootball Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper (1994)

Writhing Along in My AutomobileCrash: The Limits of Car Safety, Nicholas Faith (Boxtree 1998)

A Boy and His BanditBeloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinoüs, Royston Lambert (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1984)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper (1994)

Despite everything, football – in the true sense of the word – is still the best and most beautiful sport on earth. Disliking it because of some of the people who take part in, run it or support it would be like disliking the English language because Tony Blair speaks it or Will Self writes in it. English is bigger than them and football is bigger than sets of Red Devil golf-clubs. Football even has good books written about it. This, unlike Nick Hornby’s far better-known Fever Pitch, is one of those good books. Hornby reminds me of a nose-picker. Yes, he may have devoted a great deal of time to his hobby and derived a great deal of pleasure from it, but why tell the world?

You don’t need to ask that question about this book, because football is the world’s most popular sport and this book is an exploration of how it influences the world’s culture and politics in all manner of strange and unexpected ways. Sometimes disturbing ways too. Or amusing ones. Or both:

The general director agreed to an interview (for free) and the next day I found him in his office. It is basic and battered and located in the basement of the Omnisports Stadium, just a few doors down from the room where he kept 120 pygmies from the Cameroonian rainforests locked up last summer. Milla [a Cameroonian star at the 1990 World Cup] had invited the pygmies to play a few games at the Omnisports, to raise money for their health and education, but he imprisoned them there, issued them with guards (one of whom wore a Saddam Hussein T-shirt) and seldom fed them. A tournament spokesman explained to Reuters: “They play better if they don’t eat too much”. As for the imprisonment: “You don’t know the pygmies. They are extremely difficult to keep in control.” The Omnisports cook concurred: “These pygmies can eat at any time of the day and night and never have enough”. The little hunters themselves were too frightened to comment.

Their tournament was a disaster. Team names included Bee-sting of Lomie and the aptly named Ants of Salapoumbe, but only 50 fans bought tickets, and most of these came strictly to shout abuse at the pygmies.

Absurdity, as the Theatre of the Absurd taught us, can be cruel as well as funny, and Africa can be an absurd place, to the fullest extent of both senses. Football, there as elsewhere, reflects regional character:

Recently, three contracts have appeared for the sale of one player from Torpedo Moscow to Olympiakos Piraeus. One contract is for the Greek tax inspectors, one they show to the player, and the third is the real contract, but no-one knows which is which. (ch. 5, “The Secret Police Chief at Left-Half”)

The former Soviet Union is riddled with corruption, and so is its football. You’ll also learn in this chapter that clubs from Eastern Europe with “Dynamo” in their names were usually set up and run by the Secret Police. That is why they were so unpopular, unless they managed to associate themselves with nationalist aspirations, as Dynamo Kiev did. Kuper devotes a chapter to the club, with fascinating details of the “science of football” developed there that allowed Kiev to dominate European football during the mid-’80s with a team of super-fast, super-fit “robots”.

But I wonder whether pharmacology played its part in their success, as it may have done during the 1982 World Cup, hosted and won by Argentina. Two Argentine forwards, Kuper writes, carried on running for an hour or two after one game, in order to work off drugs they had been injected with on the orders of Argentina’s military dictators. Winning the World Cup was important for public morale, and the generals were prepared to go to any lengths to help the team win it.

Few other sports can affect the mood of an entire nation for better or worse like that, and none can do it as powerfully as football. That makes football uniquely susceptible to corruption, and uniquely placed to reflect national character. Football isn’t the world, but you can find much of what’s important in the world and its people there. If you find yourself wondering how, let Kuper show you, all from the rivalry between Holland and Germany to the Pope’s season ticket at Barcelona by way of an American journalist who holds 0•3% of the shares in Charlton Athletic.

The only complaint I have about the book is the prose, which betrayed occasional tendencies towards one of my pet hates: what Fowler’s Modern English Usage describes as “elegant variation”: that is, referring to a “spade” as a “spade” once, then as a “pedally operated earth-moving implement” before you refer to it as a “spade” again. It’s an aesthetic flaw and that’s a shame in a book about the world’s most aesthetically pleasing sport.

Crash: The Limits of Car Safety, Nicholas Faith (Boxtree 1998)

It’s got the same name as J.G. Ballard’s book and David Cronenberg’s now notorious film of J.G. Ballard’s book, but Nicholas Faith’s Crash could never have attracted as much attention at those two. A fiction about people deriving sexual pleasure from deaths and injuries in cars is much more important than the reality of deaths and injuries in cars. Rather in the way the fact that Princess Di died was much more important than why she died – which was because she was travelling in a grossly overpowered machine in a crowded city.

Lots more examples of the psychological paradoxes and lunacies of our love affair with the car can be produced, and this book produces them: “[D]uring Ulster’s quarter-century of Troubles, more deaths have been reported from road accidents than from the civil war.” But road deaths aren’t deliberate and malicious, so there’s no satisfying moral frisson to be had from them and they get ignored. Plus, we simply don’t like to face the truth – it’s too horrible to face it. Unless you stay inside all your life, you have to get near cars sometimes. That means that you can die in a very unpleasant and painful way by being hit by a car, whether you’re inside another car or not.

It’s much worse if you’re not, of course, because pedestrians take sixth or seventh place in the priorities of city-planners and architects. And car-designers:

One gesture that motor manufacturers could make an effort to reduce pedestrian injury would be to make the front of cars more pedestrian-friendly. The most dangerous vehicles are those with high ground clearance and ornaments, especially bull-bars – designed to show that the owner is used to herding cattle or elephants. These should be forbidden (or, at least, their owners assumed to be guilty if they ever hit a pedestrian).

They won’t be forbidden, because some people think they look good and they make cars more expensive, which helps the profits of the manufacturers, who have been putting profit above people for a long time. Cadillacs, for example, used to have “a prominent knife-like projection just above the instrument panel. It was designed to prevent reflection of the instrument panel onto the windshield. To accomplish this minor task, they produced as lethal a device as is seen in any American car.”

And was it removed when its lethality was pointed out? Maybe. If that didn’t interfere with profits. During the investigation into the way cars built by Ford were catching fire very easily, an American investigator

found various crucial Ford documents, one of which was a letter from the Ford Motor Company arguing why they should not make fuel-tank system improvements. They said that there will be 180 burn deaths per year at $200,000 value per burn death, there will be 180 serious burn injuries at $67,000 value per serious burn injury, and there will also be thousands of burned vehicles and there was a value on that. When you added all those numbers together it came out to an annual benefit of $50 million. Ford said we can fix the problem for $11 per vehicle but if you multiply the $11 per vehicle by the many millions of vehicle made per year, that came out to $150 million. So Ford was arguing that it was cheaper to let ’em burn.

The same kind of designers and the same kind of priorities were putting cars on the roads in Britain and Europe at the same time – and still are – and if car-manufacturers here were getting up to the same tricks as some American ones it’s quite possible that they got away with it, because we don’t have the same freedom of information laws:

Perhaps the most nefarious example of GM [General Motors]’s power emerged only in the 1970s through a Senate investigation. This revealed that it had headed a group of major companies that had bought and then shut down the light rail systems used for mass transit in Los Angeles, replacing it[,] partially and inadequately, with buses, nine out of ten of which were made by GM. The 1964 riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles were directly traceable to the inhabitants’ inability to get to work by public transport.

That sort of thing shouldn’t be unexpected, but some of the other facts in the book should be. Seat-belts save lives, don’t they? Well, yes, of course they do. Or do they? Maybe not. Studies have been done that show they don’t seem to have had any effect, because they make drivers feel safer, drive faster, and crash more often and with worse effects. Paradoxical, but “paradoxical” is a word that comes to mind a lot when you read this book. Cars have very strange effects on our psychology and for all the huge damage they do and the deaths and injuries they cause, we don’t seem prepared to do anything about them.

Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinoüs, Royston Lambert (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1984)

Antinoüs was the Bithynian catamite of the Emperor Hadrian and was discovered dead in the river Nile, apparently drowned, in 130 AD. He was about 19 years old. But why did he die? How did he die? That’s been a mystery ever since. This book is a discussion of the possible solutions and of the way Antinoüs’s life and death have influenced Western art and culture right to the present day.

Unfortunately, although Beloved and God has a good crisp title, with a subtle double entendre, its title isn’t matched by its prose. This book is dense and sometimes difficult to read, with some spectacularly crass metaphors. But it’s still rewarding, if partly as an illustration of how biography is more a disguised (and sometimes not-so-disguised) way of talking about oneself than it is of talking about one’s subject. Royston Lambert was presumably a paederast in the classical sense, and when he talks about the complexity of Hadrian’s personality or the beauty of body and soul of Antinoüs, he’s really writing disguised autobiography or sexual fantasy. But as Lambert talks about himself, he also packs in a lot of classical history and tells the fascinating story of how the cult of Antinoüs was created by Hadrian and spread throughout the empire.

I don’t like Antinoüs’ looks or the cult that surrounded him: there’s something bloated and sickly about both of them. But nihil humanum and all that: there were plenty of boy-bandits in the ancient world and there are plenty today, which is why this book has had several editions. And it does have an interesting story to tell. Among other fascinating sidelights was the story of the Paedogogium in Rome (Trajan’s and, to a lesser extent, Hadrian’s boy brothel) and the grafitti scratched there, which seems to record an early Christian pupil being mocked by his peers: there’s a crude donkey-headed Christ crucified, with the subscription ALEXAMENOS WORSHIPS HIS GOD. Elsewhere, Alexamenos seems to have struck back by proclaiming himself ALEXAMENOS THE FAITHFUL, which even I found touching. More importantly, there’s a good overview of the representation of Antinoüs in sculpture and coinage. And Lambert manages to convey the power of Antinoüs’ death in the Nile very well, describing the ancient worship of the river and the only occasionally successful attempts to placate its ferocity and caprice. Anyone drowned in the river, however humble their origin, automatically became a god and had shrines erected to them, but Antinoüs was special to someone very important and his cult became the biggest of all.

So what are the possible solutions to the mystery of his death? Lambert lists them: a boating accident; a murder by jealous rivals; a botched castration meant to preserve his youth; suicide prompted by the disappearance of youth and hence, inevitably, of Hadrian’s affections; a sacrifice to reverse successive failures of the very important Egyptian grain-harvest, which would soon have triggered trouble throughout the Empire. Traditionally the way to appease the Nile was to sacrifice to it and perhaps Antinoüs chose to die for the sake of his lover. Royston Lambert sacrificed in another way, because he was at the end of his life when he wrote this book and it was published posthumously. He could have been doing other things in the time he had left, but he wanted to leave a legacy and guide more people around the Antinoüm. But although this book is a memorial to Hadrian and Antinoüs, it’s also a memorial to Lambert himself. We can’t escape death and very few of us manage to escape ego.